But the word "experiment" increasingly reminded ordinary people of nuclear bomb tests, or even Frankenstein at work on his monster.
Global Warming Essay
Revelle himself at times warned that the experiment might bring serious problems. Testifying to Congress in , he was one of the first to use another new and potent metaphor: "The Earth itself is a space ship," he said.
The ventures into space that began with the Soviet launching of Sputnik in were pushing many people toward seeing the planet as if from outside, as a whole. For Revelle, it meant we had better keep an eye on the spaceship's air control system. Noting that climate had changed "quite abruptly" in the past, perhaps bringing the downfall of entire civilizations in the ancient world, he warned that the rise of CO 2 might turn Southern California and Texas into "real deserts.
Another scientist the media noticed was the physicist Gilbert Plass, whose own work had convinced him that CO 2 would warm the planet. Plass, thinking as a scientist, only remarked that this would allow a conclusive test of the CO 2 theory of climate change. But the magazine's editorial staff connected his ideas with the public's growing concern about pollution, printing a photograph of coal smoke belching from factories.
The caption read, "Man upsets the balance of natural processes by adding billions of tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year. Most people did not see anything ominous. The subject was scarcely noticed by anyone outside the science-minded minority who happened upon the reports, which were mostly buried in the back pages of newspapers or dropped into a news magazine as a brief paragraph. After all, nothing here was certain, not even the recent warming trend. In , a Weather Bureau expert announced that since about the world had in fact been cooling.
Just around the time scientists had started to become convinced that there was a long-term warming trend, it had reversed, although the random fluctuations were so great that it had taken two decades for the reversal to become plain. It didn't help that in the world's media capital, New York City, unusual warm spells happened to continue through the s and s. For most of the s and s, science popularizations were dismally confused. A magazine might one year predict a tropical world with cities drowned by rising oceans, and the following year warn of cities overwhelmed by gigantic glaciers.
It was uncomfortably obvious that experts could not agree about the actual trend of climate change, let alone its possible causes. Despite firm predictions by some ecologists, we do not know the answers. The one unchallenged fact was Keeling's measurement of the amount of CO 2 in the atmosphere.
His curve rose year by year through the s.
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The rise impressed scientists who reviewed climate issues on behalf of various committees. A pioneer was the private Conservation Foundation, which sponsored a conference on climate. The scientists issued a report warning of "potentially dangerous atmospheric increases of carbon dioxide. President's Science Advisory Committee decided that the potential for global warming was a matter of serious national concern. But their report mentioned it only as one brief item among many other, more troubling environmental problems.
While some knowledgeable people were beginning to worry about how humans might be altering the atmosphere, their anxiety was only partly provoked by developments in climate science. Equally important was the historic shift of attitudes about how technology might affect the natural world. Utopian hopes dissolved as the nuclear arms race hurtled onward.
The vague, almost mythological anxieties of thes were reinforced by specific and immediate fears, voiced in shrill public debates and mass demonstrations against nuclear weapons tests. It was easy to imagine a post-nuclear war world like what a science-fiction story portrayed later in the decade: the atmosphere so wrecked that horrible and uncanny storms perpetually swept the discolored skies. The lesson of fallout was that the world's air was no longer pristine, not anywhere.
Science writer Rachel Carson recalled that she used to think "the clouds and the rain and the wind were God's," but now she knew otherwise.
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In her book Silent Spring she warned that agricultural pesticides such as DDT and other chemical pollution, drifting around the world like fallout, could endanger living creatures not just in the neighborhood of the polluter, but everywhere. These influences and many others brought a new generation of social critics onto the public stage. The "conservationists" of an earlier generation had fought against local harms, the toxic river, the razed forest or stinking air in their own vicinity. That was the immorality of fouling one's own neighborhood. Now the moral lesson was still more severe.
As poor farming practices had apparently aggravated the Dust Bowl, as ancient civilizations had destroyed their lands through overgrazing, so now human carelessness and greed seemed to endanger the entire global environment. Rejecting the traditional admiration for technology, the new "environmentalists" exclaimed that human activities threatened all life on Earth.
Myths vs. Facts: Global Warming
A new view was growing of the planet Earth as a system, an interlocking and fragile whole. Presumably this view was somehow connected with improved intellectual understandings. Experts and public alike began to foresee trouble as the rise in the number of humans not only multiplied on itself, but was multiplied again by advances in technology. Meanwhile, beyond nuclear weapons a general Cold War mobilization of environmental sciences was seeking ways to control nature in order to inflict widespread harm on an enemy.
Analyzing such a tangle seemed impossible.. Nevertheless a few people at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the world center of enthusiasm for computer modeling, attempted to construct global resource models. Environmental issues like greenhouse warming were in the back of their minds we will see that one of the instigators, Carroll Wilson, was meanwhile organizing landmark conferences on climate change. Their trail blazing book on The Limits to Growth proclaimed that the limits were strict.
The computer said that exploding population would use up all available food and minerals, and if somehow we avoided that, we would eventually choke in our own polluting exhaust. The book sold millions of copies worldwide, deeply impressing thoughtful people with its calculation of "the predicament of mankind. Meanwhile scientists showed how widespread harm might be wreaked by modest quantities of materials, and not only radioactive fallout or DDT.
Meteorologists calculated, and explained to science reporters, that a modest addition of ordinary dust or gases to the atmosphere might trigger serious and unpredictable changes. New models of the atmosphere interacting with oceans and ice raised the possibility of huge and sudden upheavals. It is not clear how far these intellectual developments affected public opinion, since most people scarcely heard of them. There may have been as much influence in the other direction.
While models of an unstable climate had scientific roots stretching back into the s, scientists may have been encouraged to develop the models when their thinking expanded along with the shift of public opinion toward seeing global disruptions as plausible. Scientific ideas of any sort meant less to the public than technological coups, and not just the bomb tests. Most impressive of all was a photograph that an astronaut took from lunar orbit in Here was our small blue sphere, decorated with lacy whirls of cloud, floating like an oasis in endless black space.
Astronauts declared with an almost mystical insistence that from their high viewpoint, national boundaries became invisible as a global perspective opened up. The first Earth Day, held in , marked the emergence of environmentalism into powerful political action. New public attitudes supported bitter attacks on authorities, especially in government and industry. They were the villains held responsible for pollution and many other problems. To the new breed of environmentalists, almost any novel technology looked dangerous.
As one example, the press revealed that the U. The military was now widely despised, and in the eyes of many around the world, this attempt at climate modification was malignant. Where once people had held utopian hopes for the ways humanity would modify the environment, either deliberately or as a side-effect of "progress," now such "interference" seemed ignorant, reckless, and perhaps wicked. In every democratic industrial nation, citizens pressed their government to enact environmental protection laws. Governments gave way, taking steps to reduce smog, clean up water supplies, and the like.
The Public and Climate Change (1)
Meanwhile bureaucracies improved the organization and in some cases the funding of research on the atmosphere, along with every other element of the environment. The new attitudes affected scientists along with everyone else. Some experts were getting worried about climate change, and made deliberate efforts to stir up other scientists and the public.
The organizer was Carroll Wilson, a dynamic science policy entrepreneur who had earlier managed the U. Atomic Energy Commission. Under his expert leadership, some 40 scientists deliberated for a month over desertification, pollution of the air and oceans, and other harms. In their concluding conference report, as the first item in a big list of potential problems, the scientists pointed to the global rise of CO 2.
The risk of global warming, they declared, was "so serious that much more must be learned about future trends of climate change. Wilson followed up the MIT study by organizing a meeting of experts in Stockholm. This "Study of Man's Impact on Climate," focused tightly on climate change, was a landmark in the development of awareness. The group concluded with a ringing call for attention to the dangers of humanity's emissions of greenhouse gases and particle pollutants. Their widely read report gave as its epigraph a Sanskrit prayer: "Oh, Mother Earth Contemplating the relationship between science and society, some people would say that the judgment of scientists bent under the pressure of the mass prejudices of the day.
Others would say that public opinion responded intelligently to new scientific facts. Both views go too far in separating scientific from popular thought.
In regions like North America and Europe, where the public was relatively well educated and informed, the views of scientists and public tended to evolve together. Not everyone adopted such thinking. Many still felt, as the veteran meteorologist Joseph Smagorinsky had declared in , that "our physical environment must be considered an enemy to humanity until we master it.